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Teaching 'herstory'
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The wording of the proposed Constitutional amendment seems so innocuous, it’s hard to imagine anyone opposing it:

Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

Yet after 82 years of rallies, marches, petitions, lobbying and hunger strikes, the Equal Rights Amendment is still not a part of the U.S. Constitution.

Written in 1923 by Alice Paul, suffragist leader and founder of the National Woman's Party, the ERA was introduced into every session of Congress between 1923 and 1972, when it was passed and sent to the states for ratification.

There was a seven-year time limit in the ERA's proposing clause, which was extended by Congress to June 30, 1982. However, when the deadline arrived, the ERA had been ratified by 35 states, leaving it three states short of the 38 required for ratification. (Georgia is one of the 15 states that has not ratified the ERA.)

Since then, the battle has gone on. ERA ratification bills were introduced in the Florida Senate in November 2004, the Florida House in January and the Illinois House in February of this year.

“We had a forum here on the ERA,” says Kelli Pearson, co-owner of The Sentient Bean coffee house. “Until then, I hadn’t realized it had never passed.”

That got Pearson to thinking about the women who had fought for equal rights. “It became clear that younger women didn’t realize the inequalities that the older generation had faced and the strides they had taken,” she says. “It was shocking to realize how much we take for granted.”

The Sentient Bean has sponsored other programs focused on women’s rights. The film Iron Jawed Angels, which tells the story of suffragists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, has been screened there twice.

For the Bean’s fourth annual Women’s History Month observance, a much larger project was planned. The result is a photo and text exhibit that can be seen at The Sentient Bean through April 10 and an online exhibit that can be heard as well as seen that will remain online permanently.

“I had heard of a project called StoryCorps,” Pearson says. “They are setting up story booths around the country so people can conduct interviews with family members.”

StoryCorps, which is modeled after the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s, is a national project that is designed to inspire and instruct people to record each others’ stories.

Soundproof recording booths are being built around the country to record broadcast-quality interviews with the help of a trained facilitator. “You can take your grandmother to a story booth and record an oral history,” Pearson says.

The exhibit features stories of Savannah women and their struggle for equal rights. Some of the community’s leaders were chosen to be interviewed.

The twist comes in the fact that the women were interviewed by young women who had no way of knowing what their elders had experienced. “It is such a personal way to explain women’s rights,” Pearson says.

“I thought it would be fun to interview local women and see what their perspective was,” she says. “It all came together.”

The Sentient Bean’s manager, Tate Hudson, agreed to do recording and audio editing so the interviews could be placed on The Sentient Bean’s website. The site was then put together by Ariel Janzen.

Professional photographers Ann Curry, Imke Lass and Joanna Knox took photographs of some of the interviewees. Several young people from the Savannah Youth Commission interviewed their grandmothers, and students from St. Vincent’s Academy took photographs and interviewed their grandmothers.

“We wanted to put the interviews online so people anywhere could listen,” Pearson says. “We are going to submit a CD of the interviews to the National Archives.”

The exhibit can be viewed at “Patti Lyons and Senior Citizens, Inc. also helped us,” Pearson says. “We’ve been working on this since November.”

In all, 22 women were interviewed for the project, including Martha Fay, who is 93. “She is the founder of the Savannah League of Women Voters,” Pearson says.

“It’s important to get these stories before they are lost,” she says. “We hope the project can continue on in some form or other.

“People will talk about their experiences if they get the chance,” Pearson says. “In the future, it would be better if the interviewees were better prepped. The interviewers had all the questions beforehand, but not all the interviewees did.”

Maxine Harris was one of the women who was interviewed. Harris is an active participant in the League of Women Voters and the Chatham County Democratic Women.

“I thought it was a great idea,” Harris says. “I thought it would be interesting. I didn’t really have any reason not to do it.”

Despite her own activism, Harris, who was born in 1932, says she wasn’t really aware of women’s rights until after college. That may be because she was already pretty liberated and independent.

“I was an organizer from the fourth grade, when I formed the Helping Hands Club,” Harris says. “My family was active in the Baptist Church in my hometown and we were regular attendees. I took everything seriously.”

The Helping Hands Club made things and helped out a group of poor children who attended the same elementary school Harris did. “We met at my house,” she says.

Harris studied music and received bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Louisiana State University. “I taught piano at home so I could be there with my three children,” she says.

“As they got bigger, I started playing the organ, which was another source of income,” Harris says. “Unfortunately, people don’t consider that a job, but it takes a lot of education and background work.”

Harris continued to play and teach until about 15 years ago, when she remarried and moved to Savannah. While living in Atlanta, she began buying and renovating low-income property, which she has continued to do in Savannah.

“It was the only independent business I did,” she says. “I enjoyed that.”

Harris has always been interested in helping the less fortunate. She discovered politics at her mother’s knee.

“My mother used to sew and listen to the radio, and I listened, too,” she says. “I listened to the politicians on the radio when I was very young and I believed every one. If I could have voted then, I would vote for whichever one I had just listened to. Later, I realized you have to be more discerning.”

While Harris fully supports the ERA, her main interest in politics concerns social programs and issues. “Today, I feel this is the only way we can impact society,” she says.

“I wanted to help improve society, and politics seemed to be the way to go. Now I have more time and can be more involved.”

Harris thinks that currently women’s rights are more threatened than ever. “I think some of the laws being passed now are awful for women,” she says.

“I think (the push for ratification of the ERA) is an uphill battle,” Harris says. “It seems to me we are in the most conservative era of my entire life. We are going backwards.

“There is a move to do away with Social Security and that hurts low income people most of all,” she says. “Some people just don’t understand that we are not all born to equal circumstances.”

Women are not on the same economic footing as men, Harris says. “I think women deserve to make as much as men in the same position in the same company,” she says. “Yet it rarely happens.

“I know what’s right doesn’t always win,” Harris says. “Goodness doesn’t always win. But anything that helps women have fuller, more complete lives, I want to be a part of.”

The Women’s History Month exhibit can be seen through April 10 at The Sentient Bean, 13 E. Park Ave. Call 232-4447.